Amidst significant and ongoing mental health challenges amongst new mothers and ongoing gaps in support, the wellbeing struggles new fathers can sometimes have during or after having a baby are also becoming increasingly well-evidenced, with implications for wellbeing, relationships and families.
In this piece – based on our recent book (New Fathers, Mental Health and Digital Communication pictured above) which features interview research with 15 new fathers who experienced mental health struggles – we highlight the challenges such fathers can have with recognizing their perinatal struggles as valid and seeking help. Such challenges, we suggest, often have their roots in the quite particular and gendered ways fathers can find themselves positioned during the process of having a baby.
Paternal struggles as illegitimate
Contributed to by a variety of intersecting circumstances, from traumatic births to rapid changes in role or everyday issues with sleeplessness and isolation, the mental health difficulties fathers reported to us included depression, anxiety, trauma and OCD. The process of becoming a new parent is, we argue, characterised by significant biographical disruption. For all its potential joys, it involves sharp and sometimes unexpected changes to life and identity amidst a variety of practical and emotional challenges, making the possibility of paternal mental health difficulties something we perhaps ought not be surprised by.
Yet we were struck in our research by fathers’ tendency to have initially interpreted the struggles they had experienced as inappropriate or unacceptable, leading to spirals of self-blame and feelings of acute failure. Scripting of their struggles typically had been characterised by what we term repertoires of illegitimacy, with negative feelings understood as invalid, and incompatible with the role of a new father, exacerbating difficulties and making it particularly challenging to reach out for help. Professional support often had not been sought until the situation had reached a point of crisis or breakdown, while difficulties communicating with friends and relatives could persist for longer.
On the periphery
The broader difficulties hegemonic masculinities can contribute to with respect to men’s negotiation of mental health struggles have been much discussed. What our findings suggest, though, is that repertoires of illegitimacy among struggling new fathers may reflect the operation of a more particular set of positionings and expectations during the perinatal period. While they connect with broader masculinities, these paternal positionings place the experience of mental health struggles at odds with the role fathers often come to envisage for themselves before, during and after having a baby.
While new fathers are typically invited to play a far greater role in the perinatal process than previous generations, they are normally positioned as supporters of their partner. One of the consequences of this is that, although invited into appointments, courses, birthing rooms and maternity wards, fathers regularly report feeling on the side-lines during much of the process. Some of those we spoke to mentioned feeling peripheral or ignored during scans or post-natal appointments and most highlighted a lack of communication throughout the process about their own experience and wellbeing.
As well as leading to gaps in paternal information, preparation and support, being positioned as peripheral supporters had often fed into a broader internalised sense among fathers that their own experience, perspective and feelings ought not to be important at this time, especially when compared with the wellbeing of their partner or baby.
The rock-like supporter
Such a feeling was often exacerbated, we argue, by powerful gendered expectations on fathers to provide unyielding, unidirectional, rock-like support for their partner. Integrating with their broader sense of peripherality, being surrounded by and internalising such expectations meant that, for many fathers, feeling in need of support themselves could trigger strong feelings of failure in what many had come to see as their primary responsibility as a new father.
As a consequence, even for men normally comfortable seeking support for mental health difficulties, the experience of such struggles during or after pregnancy could feel inappropriate or invalid. John* had had few difficulties communicating with his family about emotional struggles in the past, but the responsibilities he felt in the role of supporter when he became a father made seeking help for his own difficulties during this period unacceptable to him. In his understanding, it was his partner that he, and his friends and family, should be focused on:
I do feel that I’m able to communicate with her on most things… but at that point, I felt that it was my job to sort of be the, the stoic, strong man if you like, rather than the … the worried partner of somebody who’s going to give birth… So those feelings, I didn’t really feel that I could share with my wife or anyone because I felt guilty about having them… I had a perception of what my role should be… Whereas before I’ve suffered stressful breaks up of relationships and you go and cry on your mum’s shoulder… whereas this time I felt that I couldn’t seek that because the centre of attention should be… my wife rather than me. (John)
Our research, then, has highlighted how new fathers’ positioning as peripheral supporters can make it difficult for them to see their own perinatal experience and struggles as legitimate or worthy of support.
Making paternal feelings matter
The project has sought to transform research on fathers, mothers, migrant mothers and the impact of the pandemic on perinatal mental health, into the development of resources to support new parents, training for perinatal practitioners and a variety of CPD and knowledge-exchange activities. An emphasis on greater inclusion, information and support for new fathers has formed a core strand of this work.
* all participants’ names have been changed in this and other publications
Paul Hodkinson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey, UK. His research encompasses fathers and fatherhood, youth cultures, and the role of digital media in contemporary societies. Paul’s work on fatherhood includes two recent books: Sharing Care: Primary and Equal Carer Fathers and Early Years Parenting (2020, with Rachel Brooks) and New Fathers, Mental Health and Digital Communication (2021, with Ranjana Das). Twitter: @paul_hodkinson
Ranjana Das is Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Surrey, UK. She researches uses and consequences of communication technologies, with a recent focus on parenthood. In addition to her recent book with Paul Hodkinson, New Fathers, Mental Health and Digital Communication (2021), Ranjana also explores what the digital turn has meant for new mothers in her book Early Motherhood in Digital Societies (2019). Twitter: @ProfRanjanaDas